Report: Former Santa Cruz County sheriff, captain may have misused public money to pay for unworked overtime

Published: Apr. 29, 2021 at 10:59 PM MST|Updated: Apr. 29, 2021 at 6:53 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - An investigation into the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office alleges its former leaders signed off on nearly $200,000 of compensation for thousands of unworked hours among their staff.

The Arizona Auditor General sent the report to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which suggests a prior sheriff and captain might have violated state laws related to “misuse of public monies and solicitation of forgery,” according to a release from the auditor general, from June 2013 to September 2018.

KOLD News 13 has reached out to the former sheriff about the auditor’s report but has yet to hear back from his attorney.

The report states “the former sheriff and the former captain directed 77 employees to record unworked overtime on their timesheets, resulting in unauthorized compensation totaling $196,842.” Auditors reported the sheriff in question confirmed he paid employees extra compensation for special duties and said the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors did not have the budget to support special-duty compensation.

Though the 77 employees did not work the claimed overtime, they ended up filling out more than 2,000 inaccurate timesheets for 7,220 unworked hours, according to the report. Their supervisors also signed their timesheets, certifying the unworked hours.

Maria Lizarga, a resident in Santa Cruz County, said this practice from the former seven-term sheriff, Tony Estrada really does not surprise her, what does raise the question is to how long this went on.

“It was probably swept underneath the rug because of the years he spent as sheriff, I think he got confident that he could get away with it,” she said.

The former sheriff said everyone did this under his administration’s direction and county officials were aware of this practice. However, the auditor’s report did not find any evidence to back this up and it suggests the sheriff and his captain may have tried to conceal it from county leaders from 2016 to 2018.

The report states in October 2018 the county manager became aware of the sheriff’s office practice of paying unworked overtime hours and that it needed to stop, however, the sheriff did not comply. In fact, the captain at the time emailed other staff saying the office would continue with the practice until the sheriff directs them to do otherwise, the report states.

The county manager stopped herself the practice the following week.

Following the report, the auditor general made the following recommendations for county leaders:

• Develop and implement training for County employees that clearly communicates only Board-approved compensation practices are allowed, and other practices, such as payments for unworked overtime hours, are not permitted. Employees attending this training should document their understanding in writing.

• Ensure departments include compensation, such as annual salaries or hourly pay rates, in all Letters of Appointment or other official promotion or transfer documentation.

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